Quantity, not Quality

wren carolina rump coldWhat is the best way to improve as a sketcher? To focus on the quality of our work and strive to improve it, or to put our energy into making lots of pictures. Contrary to standard wisdom, I have found that the best approach is simply to make lots of drawings.

If you focus on trying to make pretty pictures, it is easy to become discouraged when one does not come out the way we want. If we try to force it to work, the result is seldom satisfactory. This is not fun and it is all the less likely that you will pick up your pencil and work on another drawing the next time. Drawing with the goal of the drawing itself makes a fetish of the product. The judgement of  the art critic are useful in an art class but have no place in field journaling. They slow you down and actually block you from present observation.

In contrast, just enabling yourself to make as many pictures as possible opens doors. Each drawing becomes less important to the ego and one drawing invites you to the next. Sketches without judgement help you maintain your focus and embed you in the moment. This is where journalers experience flow, a state of utter concentration, fascination, and connection. The sketcher often loses all sense of time. The experience motivates you to continue and do it again.

I draw for two reasons, to see and to remember. Let go of the goal of the pretty picture. If it ends up pretty that is OK, if not, that is OK. Each drawing in not an end in itself. It is a vehicle to help you focus your attention. As you draw, you quickly reach the threshold of your knowledge and must rely on what is real and in front of you for answers. As you draw the legs of the avocet, you need to look up to see where they emerge from the body, how far down the leg the ankle joint is located, or the angle to the ground. Without the prompt of drawing there would be no reason to look so carefully at these details. The drawing also helps you remember. Our brains quickly wipe all but the most traumatic experiences from our minds. The process of sketching takes what would have been an ephemeral moment and ties it into the fabric of our long-term memory. If by making a sketch you notice something that otherwise you would not have seen or are better able to remember what you saw, the drawing is successful.

What we have learned from neuroscience supports this approach to mastery of a skill. If you want to get better at something, do it a lot. As you practice a skill, you brain will lay down sets of neurons specific to this new activity. The more you do it the more this part of your brain physically grows. If you keep drawing, you keep getting better. It never stops. There is no masterpiece. Each drawing that you do is practice for the next. Here is the paradox. If you want to make pretty pictures, do not focus on pretty pictures. It is a numbers game. Just make a lot of pictures. The pretty ones will come on their own.

“The ceramics teacher announced that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. At grading time, a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

– Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland